Moments before Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin began their startling press conference on Saturday, Finnish police dragged a man in a suit and glasses who was holding a sign that read “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” from the hall.
But Sam Husseini, a contributor to the Nation magazine who was detained for almost six hours before being released without charge, wants to set the record straight: he wasn’t in Helsinki to mount a protest.
“I wasn’t trying to make a point. I was trying to get a question in,” Husseini said during an interview at a cafe overlooking the Gulf of Finland on Tuesday. “I wanted to engage him on nuclear policy.”
It isn’t clear who tipped off the authorities about Husseini’s sign, which he had sketched out with a magic marker and finished off at the White House press centre.
When police asked him about a forbidden item he had in his bag, he said he readily took out the leaf of A4 paper and held it up. That created a scrum that played out under the gaze of the world press.
“I thought they could say ‘no, no, we don’t allow that, we have to take the sign away,’” Husseini said. “Instead, they jumped at me, my glasses get thrown to the ground and they pulled me out without any discussion.”
Husseini, who is also communications director at the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy, occupies a space somewhere between columnist, reporter and leftwing activist. He stood apart from most of the other US journalists on the White House beat at Monday’s summit.
He said tat he wanted to ask the two leaders why the US and Russia had not made a good faith effort toward complete nuclear disarmament under the non-proliferation treaty. He also wanted to know whether Trump would declare the existence of an Israeli nuclear weapons programme.
“Everyone is talking about Russia influence,” Husseini said. “Israel has more influence in the United States.”
The Nation’s editor and publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, sent out a note saying she was “deeply troubled” by reports of Husseini’s detention and urged readers to donate to the magazine.
Husseini sparred with journalists before the press conference after making a wisecrack about television reporters that some had interpreted as heckling.
“They were getting up in breathless tones and going through the same Russiagate points that they’ve been repeating for the last year and a half as if it was breaking news,” he said.
“I shouldn’t have wasted my effort on it,” he added.
But he felt it was important to inject something else into Monday’s press conference, which largely focused on accusations of election interference and felt scripted, he said.
Instead, he says, he was held first in a room resembling a dungeon in Finland’s presidential palace and later in a detention centre on the outskirts of town, with graffiti etched into the walls.
He was released later that evening after the press conference was over and the press centre had closed.
As he was taken out of the presidential palace he recalled a campaign by a local newspaper targeting Putin and Trump for their attacks on the press.
“This is freedom of the press in Finland?” he yelled at passersby. He said he was then shackled by his arms and legs and put into a police van heading away from the summit.